Lunar Tunes

You don’t need a moon phase display, writes Timothy Barber, but after seven centuries it’s still bringing poetry to timekeeping

By Timothy Barber

April 27 2019

I’ve a watch collector friend who, being an advocate (or barrister) in the Edinburgh courts, is a meticulous empiricist, a beacon of logic, reason and rationalism. Except regarding one thing: he is loony for lunar watches, bewitched by displays of the phases of the moon – and devotes unnatural amounts of energy and time to acquiring them. And Switzerland happens to be providing a particularly fulsome supply of these timepieces just now, 50 years after man first stepped onto the moon’s surface.

To state the obvious: unless you happen to plant your vegetables according to the waxing and waning of the moon, or you have a particular interest in the movements of the tides, there’s no practical value to a watch with a moon phase display. For plenty of hardened watchophiles, that’s reason enough to ignore them, but here’s how my legal eagle chum explains his obsession: “If all I cared about was timekeeping, I wouldn’t need a mechanical watch. It’s about science and art, engineering and design and creativity, and a sense of wonder.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s  Master Ultra Thin Moon  Enamel, price on request
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Ultra Thin Moon Enamel, price on request

A moon phase lends a watch a kind of romantic potency, tapping into artistic depictions of the moon through the ages, into ancient myths and superstitions, and into man’s oldest ways of measuring time.

In clocks, the indication of a 29½ day lunar cycle goes back to the astronomical clocks of the 14th century – the magnificent medieval clock at Wells Cathedral (around 1390), for instance, is dominated by a large lunar depiction with a disc that rotates through the phases. By the 16th century a basic lunar age and phase indication became commonplace on domestic clocks – according to a British Museum horologist I spoke to, this was partly because, in days when there were no artificial street lights, it was useful to know when the full moon would be.

Even then, the moon phase on a clock gave it noticeable swank value, despite the fact that the mechanics were and remain fairly simple: illustrate two full moon circles on a disc that rotates behind a crescent-shaped aperture, through which the moon gradually reveals itself and then departs. In the early 17th century this made the leap to watches, and by the late 18th century was adding poetry to the finest calendar timepieces from the likes of Breguet, Mudge et al. So it has remained.

Vacheron Constantin’s FiftySix Complete Calendar in steel  (£19,700)
Vacheron Constantin’s FiftySix Complete Calendar in steel (£19,700)

Rolex in fact gave up on moon displays around half a century ago when it concentrated on its highly functional, non-whimsical day and date indications – its incredibly rare lunar calendar watches from the 1950s reach spectacular prices at auction now. That made the moon’s reappearance on a Rolex watch in 2017 all the more surprising: the rose gold Cellini Moonphase (inset right, £20,600) is a niche kind of piece for the brand, but beautifully executed.

However, perhaps the benchmark for pure moon phase watches now is the Grand Lange 1 version from Germany’s A Lange & Sohne. With its asymmetrical dial, large date display and perfect proportions, the Lange 1 is among the most distinguished modern watch designs, 25 years old this year.

The Grand Lange 1 is its larger brother, and while you can have it sans moon phase, there’s something magisterial about the large, burnished blue disc spattered with stars and a polished gold moon so large you see yourself reflected back in it at full moon.

The Grand Lange 1 Moonphase from A Lange & Sohne, £36,800
The Grand Lange 1 Moonphase from A Lange & Sohne, £36,800

No less elegant is the Master Ultra Thin Moon from Jaeger-LeCoultreparticularly in a new version incorporating a delicate guillocheengraved dial beneath layers of translucent blue enamel. In white gold, and with asuperlative in-house movement, it’s a dress watch with an added dose of culture.

Another heritage name, Vacheron Constantin, takes a crisp, design-forward approach with its full calendar FiftySix with a rich blue dial – a watch that appears both classical and rather breezy.

Doing things completely differently is Hermes, which revealed its inspired Arceau L’Heure de la Lune in January. Instead of a moon transitioning through an aperture, this has two large, static moons in mother of pearl (one for each hemisphere), with a pair of dials (for timekeeping and date respectively) rotating above them over the course of the cycle. It’s madly whimsical, with the moons set into an aventurine background resembling a starry sky, but pulled off with the French brand’s customary finesse and style. It’s enabled, by the way, by some next-level mechanics that Hermes had to engineer especially. And what of the brand that actually landed on the moon, on the wrists of NASA astronauts? Omega’s famous ‘Moonwatch’, the Speedmaster, does of course have its own moon phase version – under a loupe, you can even see a tiny engraving of Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon’s surface. How amazed the inventors of the Wells Cathedral clock would be by that, though they’d recognise the indication.